Picking Sides in Captain America: Civil War

Four Atlantic writers discuss the newest installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

Marvel Studios

Captain America: Civil War is here—an ambitious, sprawling epic featuring a dozen superheroes doing battle over the question of whether the United Nations should start regulating their activities. The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is ostensibly the third Captain America movie, following that hero’s resistance to the “Sokovia Accords,” which would keep his Avengers beholden to UN interests. On the other side is Tony Stark/Iron Man, who’s racked with guilt over the destruction his superhero battles have wrought across the world and seeking to make amends.

The Atlantic’s film critic, Christopher Orr, gave Civil War a positive review on Friday. Now that the film is in theaters and earning the typical Marvel big bucks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Sims, Gillian White, and Matt Thompson dig into the wider political implications of its story, the deftness with which it introduces new characters like Spider-Man and Black Panther, and the film’s real-world parallels. Viewers who haven’t made it to the theaters yet, beware: Spoilers abound.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: OK. I thought it was a really, really good movie. I think people need to be aware of how easy it would be to screw up a movie like this. How many heroes are in this thing? It would be so easy to just have this be a mash of spider-webs and vibranium claws. (You know what I mean!) But it actually worked. Nothing felt forced, everyone came in when they were needed, and for the most part, everyone got an arc. I think the movie benefited a lot from being able assume people were familiar with some of the cast. There was no need for (yet another) spider bite for instance. The movie didn't try to establish Black Panther's origins. And you don't really worry about those origins because, I think, in this film and in the entire series, the Universe has been so well set up.

One other thing—this was the rare story that actually improved in the third act. I thought the unwillingness to heal wounds, indeed to salt them just when those wounds seemed to be healing, was brave, and really well done.

David Sims: I think the biggest strength of the Marvel style is the confidence with which it introduces new characters. Black Panther and Spider-Man don’t need elaborate origin arcs because we’re already so used to this living, breathing world of superheroes: It’s their motivations and how they relate to the specific story that the audience is into. I liked that we started with very clear battle lines (Cap vs. Tony, collaboration vs. vigilantism) and then Black Panther occupied murkier independent territory between them. I loved that the ideal of Spider-Man—the “with great power comes great responsibility” line, which he didn’t even need to say—could represent the best version of what Iron Man was aiming for, without feeling diametrically opposed to Cap.

It’s hard to shake how much setup these movies need, though, just because of the sheer number of characters they’re throwing into the mix. For me, Civil War didn’t really kick off until at least an hour in—around when Spider-Man showed up for the first time—because there was so much story groundwork to lay out. It’s probably why the movie juggles its ensemble so well, because it takes such care in having every hero pick a side for plausible reasons before having them attack each other. And unlike some recent superhero films (cough, Batman v Superman), it keeps things comic-book light, a specific tone these Marvel movies have always hit when so many of their rivals can’t.

It’s not straight-up goofy, it’s almost like watching pro athletes jaw at each other, delighting in deflating each other’s egos—until things get all serious. I liked that there wasn’t a simple resolution, which would have felt cheap after all this build-up. But I also kinda hated it. Cap and Iron Man shouldn’t just shake hands and agree to be friends again after all that, but I couldn’t shake the sense of “watch this space!” as they parted ways. The Empire Strikes Back nailed the bitter, open-ended ending Civil War was obviously going for, but that was only setting up one more Star Wars movie. This is setting up 10 more sequels. Civil War dug into a lot of deep superhero questions I want answered, but I was hoping at the end for a complete story arc for any of its lead characters. For Cap and Tony, not so much—if anything, Black Panther came closest.

Gillian B. White: I’m in firm agreement on the balance between giving viewers enough setup to enjoyably follow the storyline but not rehashing everything. I think I would’ve started crying in the theater if we’d walked through the Spider-Man origin story for the millionth time. But I also loved how characters were in on the joke, wondering out loud who some of the new entrants were.

I kind of hated the clear-cut moral lines when it came to picking superhero teams, so it was gratifying to see some greyer areas show up later (thanks Black Widow). But I also didn’t love the ending. At all. It was very, “Don’t worry we’re all still friends when it comes down to it.” I feel like you can’t get away with that after all the open-wound-salt-pouring action that just happened. Not to mention the nearly killing each other! I wanted it to end on a slightly more antagonistic note between the main rivals so we don’t know how, or if, they’ll be able to reconcile, and are left wondering if this really is the end of the Avengers.

But while we’re on the subject of what will become of the Avengers, I’m interested to hear what you guys thought about the idea of them having to register—the argument that kicked off the split in the first place. I thought the idea was pretty compelling, both within the framework of the movie and within the larger context of who gets to decide which causes are worth fighting for. Captain America kind of sold me with his argument that registering, even to a body like the United Nations, means that they would always be beholden to someone else’s political agenda and biases.

Coates: What side did folks come down on? In my heart I was #TeamCap but in my head I was #TeamTony. It’s been said before, but the idea that these guys should register isn’t actually that absurd. Indeed, there’s something almost tyrannical in the notion that they should be the deciders of what conflict to disrupt, devoid of any democratic oversight. Steve’s distrust of politicians is also a distrust of the people who elected them.

And yet my heart was still with him. Part of it was the fact that it was governmental oversight that had failed. When New York and Washington were nearly leveled, it was SHIELD that had authority over the Avengers. So it wasn’t clear that oversight would prevent any of this. I also think Bucky exerted a strong pull on me. His story-line—being reprogrammed, put to sleep, and reawakened to kill people—just got me going. Anyone who loves that character must read Ed Brubaker’s Captain America arc, which transformed Bucky into the Winter Soldier.

Sims: Agreed on the Brubaker arc, which felt so revolutionary on its release (just in its chutzpah in reviving a character who had been dead for decades, and doing it with such skill). Civil War should hinge on Bucky, because he represents everything that’s important and perhaps unattainable for Captain America: a belief that everyone’s inherent good can be rehabilitated, in the importance of personal connection and trust, that if we all sit down together we can come to the right conclusion. I liked what he said early in the film about agendas, that organizations like SHIELD and the UN can have them and thus corrupt the heroes working for them. That happened in The Avengers (SHIELD fired a freaking nuke at New York City), and especially in The Winter Soldier. But Cap’s position also felt a little hopelessly naive. How can the world, so acquainted with Bucky’s actions as the Winter Soldier, possibly accept him as a hero? How can Cap expect Iron Man to forgive and forget? Doesn’t Cap himself suffer from an agenda—his understandable weakness for Bucky—which causes just as much harm as good in the end? I, too, went into the movie figuring I’d be #TeamCap, especially since the logistics of the Sokovia Accords don’t make a ton of sense. But I appreciated that Civil War made it hard to rationalize his actions.

There’s a larger meta-question that the film is asking too, one that Vision poses during the initial debate over the Accords. If superheroes announce their existence to the world, they’ll quickly be challenged by villains of equal might, be they from this world or another: The Avengers’ very existence “invites challenge,” as Vision put it. You can’t have a Marvel Cinematic Universe this epic without the stakes being equally epic, and that means cities, planets, even galaxies will be under threat, and civilians will be in the way of these epic battles. Civil War is responding to the chaos of the previous movies, especially Age of Ultron (where multiple cities were torn apart) and trying to hold its heroes accountable. But it’s kind of an impossible challenge: If you’re going to have superheroes, things are going to get messy. It’s easy to understand Tony’s efforts to control things, but as a viewer, you know he can’t succeed.

White: Ugh. Bucky. I would more easily align myself with #TeamCap if it weren’t for this never-ending Bucky-saving crusade. I get it, I do. Best friends, presumed death, they did horrible things to him, he became a killer against his will. Guys, I totally hear you on what Bucky represents for Captain America, and in a larger context, but after several other iterations of the Bucky plotline I grew weary this movie. When he asked whether or not he was worth it, my initial response was, “I don’t know, man.” Is that just me? Am I too dark and cynical? In any case I was happy when they put him back to sleep so we could all focus on other things.

Coates: Gillian, I don’t think we can speak again. I don’t know how to communicate with people who hate Bucky. Here are some other things that people like you hate. Kittens. Rainbows. Babies.

White: For the record, I love kittens and babies. But rainbows may be overrated in the age of Instagram.

Matt Thompson: I agree with much of what’s been said here. I thought Civil War was a very well-executed superhero movie, and especially commendable for being lucid and cohesive despite the dozens of moving sub-plots and backstories. It was a directorial feat, and the acting, on the whole, met the challenge. The movie was especially excellent at the crescendo into those last few battles, layering on the feeling of, “No one wants to be here, this might be the worst of bad options, but this is where we are, so let’s do this.” Special praise to Scarlett Johansson for that: She played that gentle, grudging resignation, world-weariness, and internal tumult so well across multiple scenes that came with very different demands—the fog-of-war set pieces, the brief conversation with T’Challa at the UN, the parting shots at the airfield.

Where the film fails for me is in the storyline that drove this putative conflict—the relationship between Cap, Bucky, and the “villain,” Zemo. Not only was I fully #TeamTony, but both my head and my heart were there for Tony in a way that they just weren’t for Cap, and I think that made a big part of the movie feel suspect. By that closing fight, Tony was coming to the table with at least a couple strong emotional backstories—the murder of his parents and his separation from Pepper Potts, plus the (effective!) bit of heartstring-tugging from a grieving mother played gorgeously by Alfre Woodard. And even if Tony’s emotional motives had totally subsumed his rational case for restraint and submission by the ending, that case still held up: The Avengers had, after all, just destroyed an airport largely for matters of personal pique.

I have a hard time relating to Cap—stoic, righteous, beautiful Steve Rogers—in the best of circumstances, and he was at his most stoic and righteous and beautiful and unrelatable for me in this film. To believe he’d go as far as he goes for Bucky in this movie, you have to believe he loves Bucky, with all the ugliness and vulnerability and passion that love would bring. I never did. The briefest of moments between, say, Hawkeye and Black Widow, or between T’Challa and his father, heck, even between Tony and an absent Pepper, seemed more genuine and affecting than any equivalent moments between Cap and the Winter Soldier. This wouldn’t be a big problem except that the film’s ultimate conflict relies on some equivalence in the dueling emotional arcs—the rational dispute about the Sokovia Accords is mostly moot by the movie’s third act. By the time Tony and Cap and Bucky were all fighting, a moment when I wanted the emotional tug of a man avenging his parents’ death weighing against the tug of a man defending his best friend’s life, all I kept thinking was, “Wait, what are they fighting about again? And why isn’t anyone worrying about Zemo?”

Coates: I get why it’s hard to relate to Cap—or why people think it’s hard to relate to Cap. The basic idea is that he is, as you say, stoic, righteous, and beautiful. But here is the real beauty of Captain America—he’s living in an era where all of that seems in question, in a way that it didn’t during World War II. Captain America is, perhaps above all, a man out of time. He’s trying—and arguably in this case—failing to maintain these pure values in a world of nuance and complication. Fraternity bonds him to Bucky. But that fraternity conflicts with the facts of what Bucky has actually done, brainwashed or whatever. I’ve always thought that Cap, at his best, was a kind of comment on how we see World War II, “The Good War.” He’s a cartoon pulled out of our own imagined past, set in an uncomfortable, uncertain present.